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Israel’s long, hot summer

The Jewish state faces intensifying threats and internal divisions

IDF Merkava 4 tanks, in the Golan Heights, May 8, 2023. Photo by Ofer Zidon/Flash90.
IDF Merkava 4 tanks, in the Golan Heights, May 8, 2023. Photo by Ofer Zidon/Flash90.
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Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

From atop small mountain peaks in the Israeli Golan Heights you can peer deep into both Lebanon and Syria. On the Israeli side of the border, everything is green. Why? Because the Israelis irrigate and plant trees. On the Lebanese and Syrian sides, everything is brown. Why? Because agriculture and ecology are not priorities for those who rule Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah, a foreign legion of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 missiles pointing at Israelis. 

Syria is ruled by Bashar al-Assad, a dynastic dictator who has been propped up by Tehran and Moscow. With their assistance, he slaughtered well over half a million Arabs, many times the number of Arabs killed in wars against Israelis.

Tehran has been attempting to set up bases in Syria, one more platform from which to attack Israelis. Israeli pilots frequently rubble those bases along with weapons being shipped from Iran to Hezbollah.

Within the West Bank, Iran’s rulers also are arming Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other terrorist groups that have ensconced themselves in areas that, under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible to govern.

And from the south, Hamas, which rules Gaza, receives financial assistance, arms and training from Tehran to target Israelis from that coastal enclave.

Farther afield but most concerning for Israelis: Tehran’s ongoing nuclear weapons development program. President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (not actually comprehensive or a plan of action) was designed to delay, not end, that program, while rewarding Tehran with hundreds of billions of dollars.

President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and put significant (though not “maximum”) economic and political pressure on the regime.

Last week, the Biden administration agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue in exchange for the regime’s release of five Iranian American hostages. That’s on top of billions more it greenlighted to be transferred from Iraq to Iran.

Claims that the funds will be used only for humanitarian purposes are unserious. Even were that not the case, money is fungible—Iran’s rulers will now have more to spend on their nuclear program, their terrorist proxies, attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East, domestic repression and weapons for Vladimir Putin to use to murder Ukrainians. And is it not yet obvious that paying ransom for hostages encourages the taking of more hostages? 

Analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) believe the Biden administration is working to conclude a wider deal, and that it is doing so secretly, bypassing Congress in violation of U.S. law. 

That deal would enable Iran to become a threshold nuclear weapons state, enriching uranium to 60%, which is almost all it needs to produce weapons-grade uranium for bombs. In exchange, Iran’s rulers would promise Washington not to “break out” with nuclear warheads—for now.

So, Israelis face intensifying threats on multiple fronts. What are they doing in response? Quarreling among themselves. 

Not since the summer of 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw every Israeli soldier, farmer, synagogue and cemetery from Gaza—testing the proposition that ceding land would bring peace—have Israelis been as disunited. 

Today’s debate is over “judicial reform,” an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition—which includes far-right parties—to change how the justices on Israel’s Supreme Court are selected and to limit the power of those justices to strike down both legislation and policies passed by the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament. 

More broadly, most Israelis support majority rule but not majoritarianism, and want strong checks and balances as well as a separation of powers. But they vehemently disagree on how to achieve those goals.

Why haven’t Israelis tackled such issues over the 75 years since Israel’s founding? For one, they’ve been busy fighting wars against neighbors committed to their extermination.

For another, they’ve been building a free and prosperous nation-state, one in which Israel’s minority communities, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Druze and others, are guaranteed rights available nowhere else in the region—not to minorities and not even to majorities. 

Also: Israel is a diverse nation. Secular Jews, religious Jews and ultra-religious Jews do not see eye-to-eye-to-eye. There are significant cultural differences between Jews from families that spent centuries in Europe before fleeing and Jews from families that spent centuries in Muslim lands before being expelled. 

There are other Israeli tribes: Jews whose families somehow remained in the Holy Land despite the empires that came, conquered, enslaved and slaughtered. And there are Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, as noted above. 

Mix that with the ideological differences among Israel’s many political parties and the personal feuds among Israeli politicians and you have an exceptionally combustible cocktail.

Israel’s internal discord no doubt pleases and encourages Israel’s enemies. A report released last week by FDD’s Joe Truzman cites evidence that Hezbollah is now making a “comprehensive effort to disrupt Israel’s northern border region.” 

Visiting that area last week, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: “If heaven forbid, an escalation or conflict develops here, we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age. We will not hesitate to use all our power and wear down every inch of Hezbollah and Lebanon if we have to.”

I’ll conclude on a positive note: Israel is the only nation in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia attempting to work out how best to structure a democratic society, with fundamental rights protected, and limited powers granted to those the citizenry elects to govern—not rule.

Given the threats they face from Tehran and its proxies, Israelis would be well advised to make whatever compromises are necessary to accomplish this mission—even imperfectly—and sooner rather than later.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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